About 20 years ago, I was driving aimlessly along a stretch of Northern California coast highway, watching the sea and dreaming of possible destinies, while listening to a Berkeley public radio station. A program came on that was devoted to the life and music of one Raymond Scott, a name I was not familiar with at the time. The music, however, was very familiar; in fact, I knew some of the themes as if they were encoded in my very DNA! How could I know this strange, kinetic music that was like jazz and somehow not, and yet not have heard of this composer? The answer, of course, was simple: Carl Stalling, the composer for the old Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc. had borrowed liberally from Scott. In fact, the main themes of those cartoons were Scott’s.
I listened to music from Scott’s early days as a band leader, frenetic and humorous pieces with titles such as „Dinner Music for 100 Hungry Cannibals,“ „Reckless Night Aboard an Ocean Liner,“ and the ubiquitous „Powerhouse“ from the aforementioned cartoons. Having grown up in the first television generation, these pieces had unconsciously informed my earliest musical impressions. For better or worse, they were a part of me.
I learned a lot about Scott from the program. Not only was he a jazz composer and band leader in the 1930s, he was also a pioneer of early electronic music. He eventually gave up his focus on music to become a full-time inventor. He built some of the first sequencers—heavy duty, impressive-looking machinery that filled rooms with laboratory equipment. Scott was evidently a futurist. He was hired to do sound design for 1950s sci-fi films. He made three electronic lullabies albums that may very well be the first examples of ambient electronic music ever recorded. (They’re still in print and available on CD.) Bob Moog came to his laboratory to view his creations in awe. In the 1960s, he still found time to record a kind of bachelor pad/lounge jazz album called The Unexpected with the „Secret Seven,“ whose lineup included jazz heavyweights Harry „Sweets“ Edison (tp), Sam „The Man“ Taylor (ts), Toots Thielemans (hca), Eddie Costa (p,vib), Kenny Burrell (g), Milt Hinton (b), and Elvin Jones (d).
Although fascinated by the program, I didn’t give it much thought after the show ended and went about my business. My „business“ that evening included a visit to a local convenience store to play a certain pinball machine which I was sort of obsessed with at the time. As I walked to the temple of my current addiction, with its seductive flashing lights and gaudy graphics beckoning, something odd caught my eye on an adjacent magazine rack. It was a single CD without a jewel box, naked, its shiny rainbow playing surface facing out. Curious, I instinctively picked it off the shelf and turned it over. The label said, „The Music of Raymond Scott.“
Now I’m not one to look for omens and signs everywhere, but when a synchronicity of this magnitude occurs, I do pause and pay attention. What significance did this Twilight Zone dream-like occurrence have for me? Scott was an eccentric maverick who went his own way. Perhaps that’s why the universe had so pointedly made me aware of him. Was this an indication of the direction I should take on my own artistic path?
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been attracted to music that was obscure, eccentric, and above all, original. Even before my ears matured and I knew I wanted to be a player/composer, I sought out the strange, exotic, and rare. Back in the 1960s, I was a kid in New York City with a transistor radio tuned into WBAI public radio. They had this free-form radio format late at night. I tuned in religiously, listening for the weird and wonderful. It was there I discovered, among others, the Incredible String Band; world jazz pioneers Oregon; player piano composer Conlon Nancarrow; Terry Riley, the father of minimalism; Lou Harrison, an important West Coast composer and proponent of world music; the outrageous poet/ band The Fugs; and iconoclastic composer Edgar Varese.
Once at a Singer Sewing machine store that inexplicably had a record rack, I was attracted to a strange looking album called Freak Out by the Mothers of Invention. I bought it on the spot. Thus I was introduced to yet another icon of individuality, Frank Zappa. My dad had an album of the music of Eric Satie whose naive but soulful piano miniatures spoke to me, and another record called Monk’s Music by a guy with the improbable name Thelonius Monk. I looked at the photo of that man sitting in a child’s wagon and listened to his music for the first time, thinking that it sounded as if the musicians were talking to each other when they played their solos. Also thinking, Hey, maybe I could do that someday!
What do all these seemingly unrelated artists have in common? It’s obvious, isn’t it? They were all mavericks who went their own way. I’m not saying everyone I listed was a „genius.“ But I will say they all exhibited characteristics I associate with the word.
I believe it was Miles Davis who once said, „It takes a long time to sound like yourself.“ Monk said almost the same thing when he scribbled his advice to players on a napkin: „A genius is the one who is most like himself.“ We all know instantly when an artist—whether it be a John Coltrane, Billy Holiday, Kenny Wheeler, Ralph Towner, Dhafer Youseff, Nguyen Le, Sufjan Stevens, Tigran Hamayasan, Joni Mitchell, or Bjork—sounds like him/herself. You can often tell from just a single note. Personally, this is the number one prerequisite that must be present if I am to be interested in an artist, regardless of genre.
So what is this elusive thing, this sounding like yourself, and how can one achieve it? I don’t have an answer. Sometimes I think this is a thing you’re just born with, but then again, perhaps it’s latent in all of us but all too often ignored, remaining undeveloped in most people.
For me at least, part of the equation of sounding like yourself is honesty. Young multi-instrumentalist/singer/composer Jacob Collier (check out his amazing videos on YouTube or his self- produced debut album, In My Room) identifies another piece of the puzzle: He says there has to be a feeling component in order for music to touch us at the deepest level:
„For me, the greatest musicians are those who reach you at an emotional level – those who have so deep an understanding of sound on their instrument that they can use it to pull at your imagination and lift your emotions.
There are a lot of young musicians today, who are incredibly accomplished technicians, but who maybe lack a strong emotional connection with the music.
For me, the latter has always been the more important thing, and I think it’s the most universal.“
I remember once playing one of my tunes for a doctor-friend who was always brutally honest. He told me it sounded „as if I were trying to sound like something.“ He was right: Most of us mortals are unconsciously trying to sound like our heroes. It’s only when we stop and begin to listen to our inner voice that we can begin the journey towards having an authentic voice. Personally I think it’s always possible to develop one’s own voice no matter how old one is, despite the fact that many of the artists I love „sounded like themselves“ almost from the get-go.
Paradoxically, truly original work often comes from imitation, borrowing or even out and out stealing from one’s predecessors. I heard this recently on a Chris Potter piece for orchestra from the album, Gratitude. There it was, a fragment lifted from Paul McCandless’s „All the Mornings Bring,“ the same voicings and harmonic movement, even a similar woodwind orchestration. But somehow Potter transformed it and incorporated it into something of his own. Stravinsky once said, „Good composers borrow, great composers steal.“ This is not unlike Donald Fagen’s response to the accusation that he stole from Keith Jarrett’s „Just as Long as You’re Living Yours“ for the intro to his song“Gaucho.“ Fagen replied unapologetically, „Hey, we’re the robber barons of rock ’n roll!“
The other piece of sounding like yourself is that in order for an artist to connect to a larger audience, there needs to be a kind of universality in what they express, something of the artist’s humanity that speaks to the collective human experience. A quote by Emerson (not Keith, Ralph Waldo!) comes to mind: „To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men – that is genius.“ So believing in the intrinsic value of one’s work would seem to be part of the equation as well.
Thomas Edison supposedly said, „genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.“ Which turns out to be true. Any innate abilities one may be gifted with have to be cultivated or will lay fallow, never destined to come to fruition. Stravinsky comes to mind, a man who viewed composing music much the same one does any other job. He clocked in with his coffee in the morning and continued until lunch. Then he headed back to his „closet“ (a small room with a piano), glass of red wine in hand, and continued until dinner. And he did this daily, year in, year out.
We occasionally hear stories about masters who don’t seem to need to sweat in order to create. Mozart supposedly could just compose in his head and then write it all down without a single edit. Same with Joe Zawinul, who constantly improvised to tape. According to Zawinul, when he needed tunes for a new album, he simply went through his tapes until he found things he liked, claiming he transcribed them without changing a single note. These stories are apocryphal, and I suspect they originate with the artists themselves, who perhaps enjoyed propagating the myth that they were superhuman. Well they were anyway, even if they had to edit their compositions! There are rumors that Mozart asked his wife to burn his sketches when he died, and I suspect Zawinul altered a few things when he committed his spontaneous compositions to paper. I mean, really, how could he not be tempted to do so? And would knowing that diminish either artist’s work or make it less beautiful?
In writing this article I’ve had time to reflect on my own personal artistic journey and how difficult it is to „sound like yourself.“ After some four decades of trying, I’m still figuring it out. And I plan to keep working on it.
By the way, there is an addendum to my Raymond Scott story: A few days after my synchronous adventure with Mr. Scott, I did a web search and found a really cool website (www.raymondscott.net) where one can learn everything one ever wanted to know about the iconoclastic hipster musician/inventor. I wrote the webmaster and told him my story. The next day I received an email that said, „Thanks for your story. We hear many such stories regarding Mr. Scott. By the way, you wrote that email on his birthday.“